A vault in the stars
5 minute read
She wasn’t always around, you know. One day there was no one, the next there was someone, and the day after that, said someone’s gone. ***** Momma’s rag didn’t care for my fingers too much. Did you know fingers can blush like sunburned flesh? It dug into me, staining me red, rouge for a while, as if blazing rays had had their way with me - were caught in a knot and were angry with me. It scratched my skin, nestled into my nails - the slim room between them. It still worked, worked out for me; it got the job done. I didn’t really know how - the sparrows didn’t either. They peered into the big, big window of our little living room, peeking, eavesdropping, and they chatted among themselves, too; I knew that much. ‘How does twine leave glass unharmed? Unscratched?’ they asked. I wanted to tell them it was rude to peek, to eavesdrop. ‘Go, fly away,’ I wanted to say, and I would’ve swatted my arm around with a loose wrist just like Momma would’ve. But I left them there. I was kind. I just kept rubbing that vase with the rag in my palms and pretended to be someone I wasn’t, knowing I was raking glass with stiff, stiff cloth, and that I could get away with that, cause Momma told me to do it. Rags aren’t metal made, but Momma’s sure felt like it. I liked Momma’s vase. It was called an heirloom - a gift from her momma and her momma’s momma. It had lines and patterns that made me dizzy, like tree bark. I knew how trees were. Crevices in brown turrets shoot up into the sky and curve in a hundred different directions on their way to heaven, as though they are indecisive! Then limbs jut out where the green crown lives - the luscious gates. Trees are like that. I knew that. Vases don’t have branches or leaves and Momma’s vase didn’t have lines that were really roads to God, but it had streaks that traveled in different ways. It had curves like us - we’re shaped like Momma’s vase. Momma liked to say that, all the time, too. ‘Trees may go to heaven, but vases have pretty curves, like us.’ That’s what Momma liked to say. ***** She wasn’t always around, you know. One day there was no one, the next day there was someone. The girl walked through our little front door, peeked and peered inside like the sparrows had. She came when the air rippled in waves and when crickets and cicadas croaked their songs at noon. I felt sticky between my arms and thighs and Momma had her pretty paper folding fan in her hand; Momma knew how heat went but she whipped it back and forth across her face. The girl came draped in silk from head to toe, hands crossed on her stomach. She stepped inside, slid her flat shoes off by the door and smiled softly when she looked at me. Her face was narrow like a squashed peach - bony. I pushed my dry palms into my face, maybe to pretend I was her. She had rosy cheeks - their color looked like my fingers when they raked metal across glass, while I pretended I was someone new. I liked to pretend. I remember. The heat was almost unbearable in skimpy clothing, and so I thought she must be from Hell. I looked at Momma and waited. I thought she’d be all nice and sweet, but she sure wasn’t. She always taught me about hospitality and all, but Momma’s face looked sour, like she’d just sipped a glass of lime juice when she expected lemonade. She looked her up and down with those sour eyes I’d only ever seen a couple times, a couple times for Daddy, and turned right around and walked away somewhere deep into our little house. No hellos, no how are yous. Just limes. The girl looked disappointed, but not so surprised. No, not so surprised at all. She looked at me, then, and searched for something else, something other than limes. Momma knew best, though. So I scrunched up my nose, crossed my arms and popped my hip and looked her up and down, just as Momma had. ‘Who are you?’ I asked with as much attitude as I could, the kind Momma would’ve told me needed to be washed out with peppermint soap. The girl looked disappointed, but not so surprised. No, not so surprised at all. ***** The girl settled in. At least, as much as she could. Momma put her straight to work; had her scrub the floors with that stiff rag and clean the big, big windows the sparrows peered into. Momma made her cook dinner for all three of us each night - said it was only fair. ‘You’re here, in my house. You have to pull your weight around here. And I don’t care how your daddy does it, either.’ Then, she whispered a secret into her ear: ‘you’re in Texas now, not Syria. So you better make American food with American ingredients, you hear?’ I just so happened to overhear. But here’s another secret: I’d never scrubbed the floors with Momma’s rag or the big, big windows the sparrows peered into. I’d never made a meal before back then, let alone for three. My only task was to clean the curvy vase called an heirloom that looked just like us. Like Momma and I. That’s one way I knew I was better. I would later learn her name means world in her language: Donia. Everyday, five times a day, she would lay a blue rug on the floor, with just the same rich, deep blue hues that colored Momma’s curvy vase. She would fall to her knees slowly, and position herself flat - parallel to the ground. Each time she’d face left, towards the small department store down the block and the Richards’ house. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked her once, and I remembered to season my tone with peppermint lime, because Momma knew best, of course. She only answered after she opened her eyes. ‘I’m saying a prayer to God,’ she replied. I scrunched up my nose even further at that. ‘Why? Did He do something for you?’ I sneered. ‘And you always face that way, towards the Richards’ and the department store. Why can’t you face another way?’ To this, she smiled again; sincerity gleamed in her dark eyes, dark like waves that tumbled and tossed in the sea at night - that’s another secret, cause hardly anyone knows the sea turns obsidian under a midnight sky. It isn’t always blue. ‘Everyday, five times a day, I pray towards the city of Mecca, the homeland. It’s what my religion requires. It can’t be done any other way.’ Donia later told me about the scarf she wore around her hair, a hijab. She wore that for her religion, too. She couldn’t take it off, not in front of those who weren’t women or related by blood. But Donia didn’t pray to her god everyday five times a day and cook and clean and scrub our wooden floors alone. She had dreams. College, a career in medicine, a life without a husband and a safe haven to pursue poetry. Back home they were secrets only the stars knew. She trusted them, just enough, but never dared to plead to the brightest and beg for the world to morph them into reality. No, that was far too risky - what if someone heard? What a catastrophe it would be. Here, she didn’t mind speaking of her desires aloud. The preening ears of her relatives were far out of reach, on the other side of the vast Atlantic sea. Besides, Arabian nights are far less trustworthy than ours. Sand whisked away by humid winds might be bitter enough to slip her secrets to someone she knows - you never know how sand might feel, do you? I caught her writing a poem with a feathery quill and a papyrus scroll once. Donia said they never use those instruments in Syria today - just a phone or computer. She simply found them authentic - that they enriched her words with charisma and ancient character that a screen never could. Her calligraphy told stories of her dreams and how she knew they would never come true. She wrote about all that she told me: college, medicine, a life with no husband and a safe haven to pursue poetry, and she wrote about all the stars she spoke about them to; how she hoped they’d keep her secret and how she wished sand was on the sweeter side. I lost some of the peppermint lime I was so determined to keep fresh on my tongue. She had it different in Syria, even in modern times. I understood that much. But Momma knew best. And I still knew I was better. Donia told me she’d never seen anything quite like American freedom. ‘Your possibilities are limitless. You can have any future you want, if you just cared enough to make it,’ she said once. I didn’t sense jealousy. I sensed longing. It frightened her, our limitless lives, but unfamiliarity can frighten us all a little, can’t it? ***** Donia never took her hijab off around strangers, but she took it off in front of me. ‘You’re a girl,’ she explained. ‘You’re also family.’ She eventually shed her silky layers and head scarf a few weeks after staying with me and Momma. She revealed herself to me, and I remember I felt so flattered and pleased. I remember. Her hair was dark, just like her eyes and midnight waves. It fell to her waist in loose curls - it was pretty, I’d say, and no one else in Texas got to see it but me. Momma too, of course. Her body was slim, just like her face that looked like a squashed peach. I knew I was better, more so then. She didn’t have curves like Momma’s vase, not like Momma and me. That meant I was better. That’s what Momma taught me. Trees may go to heaven, but vases have pretty curves like us. That’s what Momma liked to say. But Donia wasn't very much like a tree. She was slim and tall and just might go to heaven, but she was far less rugged and was far more smooth; more of a spoon - a wooden spoon draped in silk. I remember I once asked her what she wanted to do. As a doctor, I meant. ‘Anatomy,’ she said. ‘If somehow, by the grace of Allah, I’m blessed with the chance to heal, I would like to study the human body and all its mysteries.’ ‘Is that what that is? Anatomy?’ I asked. And it was genuine, too. She let me study her anatomy sometimes; walked me through the basics of her body. She let me trace the divots in her spine and taught me it was made with something called cartilage, just like the tip of her nose and the edges of her ears. Let me feel the tiny dips in her fingers that made signature prints. No one knew she smuggled textbooks meant for men out of libraries, memorized every word before she slipped them back between the shelves. No one except me and untrustworthy Arabian nights. ‘That’s right,’ Donia smiled. But I still knew I was better, the better daughter. Momma told me so, told me my momma is better than Donia’s but that our daddies were just as foul, just as rotten. Momma was married once, because she was in love, and when she was married and in love she had me. But before she was in my daddy’s life there was another woman, and he was married and in love with her, too; she’s Donia’s momma. Momma didn’t know, though, had no idea that Daddy was married and in love before her. It was enough, enough to convince her to leave. She thought he was running games. But when Daddy died, Momma’s little bit of love, holding on by just a silky ribbon or two, told her she was obligated to take in his daughter. But even now, like what sand whisked away by humid breezes just might be like, she seemed bitter towards the Syrian blood that ran through my veins, and the full Syrian in Donia. It took me a while, a long, long while, to realize Momma put her straight to work when she came because of sandy bitterness. But Momma knew best, didn’t she? ***** She wasn’t always around, you know. One day there was no one, the next there was someone, and the day after that, said someone’s gone. Donia left suddenly and without warning. Momma shooed her out the door, told her to ‘go back to where she belongs’ and slammed it in her face. And all of that just because of Momma’s curvy vase. I was scrubbing Momma’s heirloom with that stiff rag of hers. My fingers blushed like sunburned flesh again and I felt hard pressure on the inside of my nails - nothing terribly unusual. Life only grew unusual when I noticed a crack in the sea of blue hues. I haven’t a clue what made those cracks. I still think about it now. Perhaps it was the rough rag that did it - decided to ruin its beauty. Perhaps it was finished with scrubbing perfection, or was jealous of the curvy vase. I’m not sure. I have no idea. I froze when I spotted it, the crack in the perfect pottery. I knocked on the vase, once, twice, and the crack grew larger and larger. What could I have done? I called Donia into the living room. ‘What’s the matter, Sister?’ she asked me. ‘There’s a crack in Momma’s vase. Can you fix it?’ Mistake. I rose from my seat and handed her Momma’s rag. She sat where I was sitting and traced a finger on the pottery. Momma just then walked in from the kitchen. Momma was furious - the crack could be seen from a mile away. And just like that, Donia was thrown out the house into the scorching heat without her hijab and without her layers of silk. ‘She broke it didn’t she, Darla?’ Momma seethed. She glared at the crack and then at the door, as though Donia were standing right there in front of it. ‘Tell me! She did, right? You wouldn’t have done this.’ I liked to pretend I was someone I wasn’t, so I pretended I wasn’t Darla. I pretended I was Donia instead. ‘It was her fault,’ I said. And when Momma stormed off, I whispered the truth. ‘It was her fault.’ A salty tear crept down my cheek. ‘Darla’s fault, not mine.’ I don’t know what happened to her. After a few hours I went outside and found she was missing. Momma wouldn’t let me glance sooner. I left her traditional clothes that were stuffed into her bag, by Momma, I think, tipped over on my bed sheets, outside on the front steps just in case she came back. The next morning, those were gone too. Momma told me she was safe in Syria, and that I shouldn’t worry anymore. She was simply unwelcome from that point forward. Momma knew best, didn’t she? I had no reason to doubt her, did I? I was the better daughter. I knew I was better. Momma told me so. Donia deserved that, the kick. She shouldn’t have been so gullible. That’s what I tried to think. But no matter what I told myself, I soon found that I longed for my sister who whispered secrets to Arabian nights.